Doesn’t everyone dream of going off for a year or two or thirty to a cabin in the woods?
I guess, then, it’s just me and the Unabomber and good, old Henry David Thoreau. But when I am tired of the Sturm und Drang and of course, the freeway traffic, the solitary time in the woods seems very inviting.
Journalist Michael Finkel in his book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), profiles a modern hermit, Christopher Knight, who disappeared into the Maine woods for almost thirty years until his recent capture while burglarizing a nearby camp. It is an extraordinary tale that is riveting and unbelievable. The area where Knight had his camp near North Pond is not completely isolated; many people have vacation cabins there and during the summer, the place teems with campers and tourists. Yet, over the course of his time there, Knight had exactly one occasion where he came face to face with another human being. They greeted each other and went their separate ways. The hiker out for a day time stroll had no idea he had just encountered a living myth. People in the area often reported burglaries at their properties, but nothing of much value was ever taken. Knight would break in to steal food, clothing, batteries, and books. He would not damage the property, and when he needed to pry open a door or window, he brought tools with him in his kit to make the necessary repairs when he left. The Pine Tree Camp where Knight was ultimately arrested had been burglarized several times by the hermit who gained entrance using a key he swiped on an earlier visit.
Knight left home for the woods when the meltdown at Chernobyl was in the news. That is how he determined the span of years he had lived in the forest after he was arrested. His camp was not far from other cabins, but it was surrounded by large boulders and scrub leaving a clearing in the center where Knight set up his tarp and tent. Finkel makes several excursions to the place, and the first time he goes, he actually has a lot of trouble finding the site. It is the perfect place to hide, nearly in plain sight. From there, Knight would cautiously venture out into the darkness, careful to leave no tracks or traces of his encroachment. He combines a sort of obsessive compulsive need to come and go like a ghost leaving nothing to betray his camp or person behind to tip off investigators. Some people, after being burglarized several times, started leaving out food and clothing for him, but he never touched those items.
In the Maine woods, temperatures in winter plummet to sub-zero depths, but Knight survived by staying awake and active during the most frigid parts of the early mornings. He had no training in survival but existed on luck and the bounty left behind by the summer campers. It is an incredible story. Knight was caught only when one particularly resourceful ranger set up an elaborate system of alarms and traps. Most of the time, Knight was able to frustrate law enforcement and defeat special motion-activated alarms and cameras. Terry Hughes, the ranger, just got lucky one night.
Of course, Knight never hurt anyone nor did he ever threaten others. The land he squatted on in his camp was owned by someone, but it was not being used. He cleaned up any mess and avoided people. So what, exactly, was his crime? He was arrested by Hughes and sentenced to prison, but his life after seems sad and confining when Finkel visits him. It takes the reporter many, many tries to gain the confidence of Knight, who comes off as possibly on the autism spectrum or at the very least, anti-social. The book is both a story of a modern hermit’s life as well as a profile of an odd man out from society.
Along the way, Finkel discusses the roots of the hermit life and the roles hermits have played in human history. This is also an interesting facet of the book. While in the wilds, Knight’s chief form of entertainment was reading. Finkel writes that “The life inside a book always felt welcoming to Knight.” Interestingly, this hermit had no empathy for Thoreau, and in fact, Finkel says that Knight had disdain for the 19th century writer. He also never kept a journal. The one thing that provoked a strong reaction in Knight was an issue of National Geographic containing a photograph of a young shepherd from Peru. The boy was standing by the side of a highway crying with the bodies of many of his sheep strewn behind him having just been struck by a car. “They published a photo of the boy’s humiliation,” says Knight. “He had failed his family, who had entrusted him with the herd. It’s disgusting that everybody can see a little boy’s failure.” There are a few of the moments of illumination of the mind of Christopher Knight.
I found the book fascinating. It is natural for human beings to crave solitude as well as the company of others. For some reason, Knight lacked the latter. When life in civilization became unbearable, he went off into the woods to live the life he imagined. He simplified his existence, as Thoreau advocated, and for 27 years he lived life on his terms, in his head space. His parallel universe existed in the Maine woods right alongside the campers and vacationers. Then, on one fateful night, the hermit’s life ended and he was back in the harsh glare of civilization, and nothing would ever be the same again.